The Controversy Over Napster

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The Controversy Over Napster

March 30, 2000 | The refrain snaking through Salon's recent article on why a lot of professional musicians hate Napster -- the software that lets users easily swap MP3 music files -- is familiar and catchy: One artist after another steps forward to state, with a hint of indignation in their voices, that "artists should get paid for their work."

That may seem to most of us today like common sense, a law of nature, but in fact it is a concept of relatively recent historical vintage. In popular music, the notion of a class of professional songwriters and musicians who might support themselves -- and just maybe get rich -- through their music is not much more than a century old.

New technologies -- first sheet music, then radio and the phonograph -- made pop-music professionalism possible. So suggesting that other new technologies might change the landscape again isn't, as the indignant artists would have it, a violation of their rights or a fundamental upending of the moral order; it is merely observation of a historical process at work.

Historical process is, to be sure, impersonal and uncaring, and inevitability alone doesn't render structural changes in the music business that might cut into a superstar's profit, or force the members of a marginal band to take day jobs, any less painful. When steam power drove the hand-loom weavers of pre-Victorian Britain out of business, they took to smashing machines under the banner of mythical "General Ludd"; today's recording artists, fearful of being similarly economically displaced, have taken their Luddism into the legal system, and are attempting to smash the new music machines with lawsuits.

Rather than insist that the way the music world does busi...

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...inment-industry parlance, a "well-served market"?

One way of looking at the music industry wars today is to see a battle between entertainment corporations, whose revenue depends on keeping intellectual property secure and costly, and new technologies that tend to unlock intellectual property and drive its price down. Note that in this picture, both artists and fans aren't the primary combatants: They are, in truth, free to choose sides.

The hordes of music listeners who have begun to violate the copyright laws en masse with Napster have made their choice. Musicians seem more divided, with the majority -- perhaps still hoping to win the superstar lottery, or unwilling to rethink the economics of their chosen career -- still leaning toward the music companies' position, and a few renegades trying to experiment with new approaches.